As the vultures circle overhead, Vermont’s potentially vulnerable attorney general, Democrat Bill Sorrell, says he’s gearing up for a fight.
Reached Thursday afternoon on his way back from a Washington, D.C., conference of the National Association of Attorneys General, Sorrell said he held a fundraiser Sunday night that netted him “thousands” of dollars for his eighth reelection campaign — his first competitive race in years.
Sorrell (pictured at right) said the fundraiser was attended by former attorneys general and corporate members of the Democratic Attorneys General Association. To be in compliance with the campaign finance laws he’s charged with enforcing, Sorrell said, registered lobbyists were not invited to the bash.
Even as Sorrell works to fill his campaign coffers, State Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) said Thursday the odds are 75 percent that he’ll challenge Sorrell this November. The longtime Northeast Kingdom legislator, who also serves as Essex County States Attorney, said he spent the week reaching out to friends throughout Vermont to gauge support for a run.
Explaining why he might jump in the race, Illuzzi characterized Sorrell’s tenure as AG as that of “an absentee owner.”
Sorrell has been under political pressure since January, when his office lost a high-profile federal lawsuit brought by Entergy Corp., which successfully argued that the legislature overstepped its bounds in refusing to allow the company’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to continue operating. Illuzzi said Sorrell’s handling of the case is one of the reasons the legislator is mulling a challenge.
“The office could have done much better in advising the legislature and preparing for that litigation,” Illuzzi said.
Sorrell took issue with Illuzzi’s characterization of his handling of the Entergy case, arguing that he counseled legislative leaders to avoid discussing safety issues, which fall under federal control.
“I worked very closely with the legislature when they were crafting the statutes that were challenged in the case,” Sorrell said. “If Vince wasn’t in one of those meetings, it might have been because he was elsewhere, but I can assure you those meetings took place. If that’s what he means by ‘absentee owner,’ I would say, ‘not guilty.’”
In response to Illuzzi’s contention that he’s out of touch, Sorrell said, “That is laughable. To even say that is laughable. I don’t know how much he has his finger on the pulse of whatever, but as I move around Vermont I get a huge amount of positive feedback for he work that I do.”
Illuzzi’s is just one of several names floated as possible contenders. Chittenden County States Attorney T.J. Donovan and House Speaker Shap Smith, both Democrats, have been rumored to be considering challenging Sorrell for the Democratic nomination. Donovan on Thursday declined to comment on the speculation and Smith did not return a call for comment.
As a Republican, Illuzzi would face formidable challenges going head-to-head against a Democrat with high statewide name recognition in a year when popular incumbents such as Gov. Peter Shumlin and President Barack Obama are on the ballot. He said that while some have urged him to run as an independent, he would likely run under his party’s banner.
“You gotta dance with the ones that brung you,” he said. “I think enough people know me that they’re not going to lump me into Washington or all those lunatics on the presidential campaign trail.” [See update at bottom of post.]
Illuzzi cited his strong working relationship and friendship with Shumlin, who publicly suggested Illuzzi run for governor in 2008.
“I just had a beer with him on Saturday at the Daily Planet,” Illuzzi volunteered.
As to whether he would support the man likely to sit at the top of the Republican ticket he’s poised to join — gubernatorial candidate and State Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) — in a race against Shumlin, Illuzzi demurred.
“I don’t know about that. I don’t think I can do that. That’s not in me,” he said. “I think both have attributes that would serve the office well… I have to see what Randy has to say.”
Having served in the Senate since 1980, Illuzzi would risk losing an influential perch in state government if he took on Sorrell and lost, but he says that’s a risk he’s willing to take.
“Certainly I’ve been there for more than half of my life,” he said. “To try to accomplish a lot of the same objectives from a different vantage point, that would be a transition. If I was completely out of it, it would be kind of sad. But that’s life.”
As for Sorrell, he says he is “kind of surprised” by the crop of potential challengers, but he’s ready to defend his tenure.
“They’re all Vermont lawyers and if any one or more of them chooses to run against me, I’d be happy to have my record compared with theirs,” he said.
UPDATED: According to Sen. Illuzzi, he was not referring to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney when he mentioned, "all those lunatics on the presidential campaign trail," but, rather, Romney's opponents for the Republican presidential nomination. Illuzzi, who has endorsed Romney for president, says that while he is proud of Romney's record as governor, he is disappointed that the primary campaign "has come close to destroying who he is and what he stands for."
"These primaries have just dragged him down, and it's very sad to see that, but I still think he's a great guy," Illuzzi said.
Photo of William Sorrell courtesy of Mary Kay Swanson; Seven Days file photo of Sen. Illuzzi